May 28, 2008

More on the Bernier resignation ..

Tory Blues
MediaScout - Daniel Casey

In the Bernier affair, Canada has finally produced a government scandal worthy of tabloidization. We never get the sexy stuff up here, after all. Yet today, one gets the distinct impression that the press corps has finally found what they were looking for all this time, but could not articulate: That the deepening mess over the resignation of Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier reveals that the Conservative government doesn’t know what it is doing, that Harper’s tightly controlled cabinet ministers are mostly out of their depth. Bernier’s casual attitude toward confidential documents raised eyebrows long ago, as even minor ministries, much less Foreign Affairs, keep close track of their papers. At the heart of the issue is Harper’s own judgment in appointing the inexperienced Bernier in the first place, anticipating a huge controversy over deploying the Quebec-based Royal 22nd Regiment to Afghanistan. Harper’s handling of the missing documents and the security concerns over Bernier’s girlfriend, Julie Couillard (break-ins! bikers! bugged beds!), are also raising eyebrows and causing the government to get pummeled in Question Period. What’s more, the prime ministerial lockdown on communications only works if it works, yet after so much ministerial muzzling and emphasis on message discipline, the government has been out-spun and out-hustled by the wily Couillarda communicator so deft and well-spoken as to have been approached by the Conservatives to actually run for Parliament (or so she claims).

The National’s At Issue panel convened on an emergency basis, peppering its hotstove with suggestions that the Ottawa press corps knew for some time that something was up. Peter Mansbridge let slip that sources in the PMO were aware of a big problem with Bernier as long ago as January, while Chantal H├ębert revealed that Couillard was trying to sell her story (for a hefty sum) ten days ago, saying that she had evidence that Bernier was incompetent. For the moment, a major Cabinet shuffle is in the making, with Industry Minister Jim Prentice possibly moving up to Finance and David Emerson likely to stay in the Foreign Affairs portfolio he took over temporarily this week. Bernier and the lackluster Helena Guergis will be sent out of Cabinet, and star backbenchers James Moore, Gerald Keddy, and Rod Bruinooge are moving on up to a deluxe ministerial position. The analyses of Gilles Toupin and Vincent Marissal in La Presse today are invaluable in understanding Harper’s delicate approach to his Quebec ministers, upon whom he will rely to help win him a majority but who come from rival wings of the province’s small-c conservative bleue tendency.


THE NATIONAL: “The Fallout: What she’s alleging has the government under fire”
CTV NEWS: “Opposition demands answers on Bernier files”
GLOBE AND MAIL: “Five-week gap fuels outrage”
TORONTO STAR: “Bernier storm escalates”
NATIONAL POST: “Bernier probe demanded”
LA PRESSE: “Opposition wants to hear from Bernier”
OTTAWA CITIZEN: “Bernier scandal dogs PM overseas”

Information requests are picking up and government response times are slowing down, the federal information commissioner reports. The Burmese junta waits until UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon is out of the country to formally extend the house arrest of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. A British Columbia judge grants a far-reaching legal reprieve to a Vancouver safe-injection site.

The Citizen
fronts, while the Star and the Post go inside with a story about documents and government secrecy. This one doesn’t involve low-cut dresses or bugged bedrooms, but it has meaningful implications for what stories you read in the paper and how they are reported. Federal Information Commissioner Robert Marleau, whose office oversees the Access to Information Act, made his annual report to Parliament yesterday and testified that complaints about requests for information are skyrocketing as delays grow longer and longer. While the government is generally required by the Act to release information within thirty days of receiving a request, officials can delay the release of official documents under various conditions, typically citing national security or confidentiality concerns. Marleau cites the “attitude” of officials towards Access to Information requests as one culprit, and the Star is more than happy to extend his appropriately circumspect comments with those of researchers and lawyers whose criticism of the Conservative government’s attitude towards government secrecy is less restrained. Ottawa lawyer Michael Drapeau says the system is “paralyzed for all intents and purposes,” and blames the controlling attitude of the Privy Council Office, the prime minister’s department, for the delays.

One of the Information Commissioner’s most significant responsibilities is acting as a referee and ombudsman for complaints lodged by the public about specific requests to government ministries. Marleau reported that more than one hundred complaints were received about requests to the departments of National Defence and Foreign Affairs over the treatment of Afghan prisoners; while the requests were denied on security grounds, a lawsuit against the government by the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association forced the government to enter the documents into evidence (in effect, releasing them) in January. While Chief of Defence Staff Rick Hillier had been reviewing requests about the possible use of torture since March, 2007, the papers showed that military officials knew since June of that year that there was a possibility prisoners transferred to the Afghan government might be tortured. Marleau defended his decision to support Defence and Foreign Affairs, saying that evidence of mistreatment of prisoners could have “put the defence of Canada or Canada’s allies at risk,” and could have harmed relations with foreign countries.
Maxime Bernier resigns as foreign affairs minister, Canada - 27 May 2008
Maxime Bernier has resigned as foreign affairs minister, after he acknowledged leaving sensitive government documents out in the open -- apparently at his ...
Opposition demands more answers in Bernier affair, Canada - 6 hours ago
Maxime Bernier arrives to be sworn in at Rideau Hall in August. He is accompanied by Julie Co

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